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Are Younger Catholics Abandoning Fish On Fridays?

A young parishioner carries plates filled with fried fish and potatoes to a table during a Lenten Friday fish fry at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Littleton, Colo., in 2009.
David Zalubowski
A young parishioner carries plates filled with fried fish and potatoes to a table during a Lenten Friday fish fry at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Littleton, Colo., in 2009.

It's Friday, and it's Lent. Maybe those of you raised Catholic, as I was, remember tuna noodle casserole, sticks, or the Friday night fish fry?

Seafood consumption typically increases during Lent in the U.S. But Harry Balzer of the survey firm NPD Group says younger Americans are less likely to follow the tradition.

Over the past 25 years, NPD finds, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds who report eating fish at home during the Lenten season has dropped noticeably — from 66 percent in 1988 to 54 percent in 2012. Among older Americans, however, consumption remains steady. The data come from a survey that tracks the eating and drinking trends of a representative sample of households in the U.S.

So does this mean that young Catholics are being less observant of the church's rule about abstaining from meat on Fridays? It's not clear.

The data sorted respondents by age but not religion — so we can't know which ones were Catholic. But presumably, Balzer says, Catholics are the driving force behind the annual increase in fish consumption in the U.S. during Lenten months.

"There's no question that there's a structural change in the role of seafood in the diet of younger people," Balzer says.

So what explains the change? Balzer says it's likely a combination of factors: Fish isn't exactly convenient to prepare, it can be expensive, and maybe younger people don't like fish as much as their parents' generation does. Balzer says, presumably, religion plays a role too.

But Scott Richert, who writes about Catholicism for and other outlets, offers another possible interpretation of NPD's data.

From his observations, Richert tells The Salt, younger Catholics are more observant — not less — of the church's rules regarding abstaining from meat on Fridays. For many, he says, it's year-round, not just during Lent. It's possible, Richert suggests, that more young Catholics are eating non-seafood alternatives to meat.

"With the cultural mainstreaming of vegetarianism and veganism in recent years," Richert says via email, "maybe young people are choosing pasta or other alternatives." Richert has compiled some Lenten recipes here, many of which contain no seafood at all.

So why is it that many Catholics around the world abstain from meat on Fridays, particularly during Lent?

"The spiritual purpose of Friday abstinence is a communal penance to recall the Lord's passion," writes Raymond J. de Souza, an ordained Catholic priest in Canada, who is a frequent contributor to the National Catholic Register. And as he writes in this article, "Friday abstinence is a relatively easy way to give witness at work, at school and even in the family."

So if you're Catholic — practicing, lapsed or somewhere in between — let us know what you think: Fish on Fridays? Vegetarian alternatives? Or have you given up on the whole idea of Lenten abstinence?

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.